April 18, 1994 Volume 143, No. 16
The last weeks of Kurt Cobain's life were filled with turmoil and anguish - and gossip. Rumors floated through the music industry that the singer-songwriter's band, Nirvana, was breaking up; that Cobain, who had survived a tranquilizer-induced coma just six weeks earlier, had suffered another overdose. The stories seemed to be justified when the group unexpectedly backed out of headlining the Lollapalooza tour this summer.
The truth, it turns out, was that Cobain, who claimed to have overcome an addiction to heroin, was indeed abusing unspecified drugs. A record-industry source told TIME that two weeks ago Cobain's wife Courtney Love, front woman for the group Hole, gathered doctors and friends together in Seattle, the couple's home, to try to scare Cobain into dealing with his problem; Nirvana's managers even threatened to drop Cobain from their roster unless he got cleaned up. The intervention seemed to work, for Cobain checked into a California treatment center. But according to a missing-persons report filed by his mother, he fled early last week. Seattle police periodically checked Cobain's house, finding no traces of the singer.
Last Friday, an electrician visited the house to install a security system. When no one answered the front door, he walked around the house, peering through windows. He thought he saw a mannequin sprawled on the floor, until he noticed a splotch of blood by its ear. When police and the coroner broke down the door, they found Cobain dead on the floor, a shotgun still pointed at his chin and, on a nearby counter, a suicide note penned in red ink, reportedly ending with the words "I love you, I love you," addressed, a source said, to Love and the couple's 19-month-old daughter Frances Bean.
Kurt Cobain, dead at 27. The news came as a shock to millions of rock fans, and MTV pre-empted its usual programming for hours of J.F.K.-like mourning, with a somber Kurt Loder playing the Walter Cronkite role. Given Cobain's talent and influence, however, the reaction was understandable. Nirvana came from the music-industry equivalent of nowhere, with a rough-edged first album recorded for a chiselly $606. The next, Nevermind, released 2 1/2 years ago, contained a series of crunching, screaming songs that also had catchy melodies, part punk, part Beatles. Selling almost 10 million copies and knocking Michael Jackson's Dangerous from the top of the charts, the album fibrillated the psyche of a generation. It also launched the commercial vogue for grunge and made Seattle famous for something other than cappuccino, rain and bad professional sports. Before long, equally abrasive Seattle groups like Pearl Jam (a Nirvana rival), Mudhoney and Alice in Chains joined Nirvana high on the charts. The New Liverpool, Rolling Stone called the city in early 1992 (launching searches for the New Seattle).
Cobain was at the center of it all, the John Lennon of the swinging Northwest, a songwriter with a gift for searing lyrics as well as seductive hooks, a performer with a play of facial expressions so edgy and complicated that they rivaled Jack Nicholson's.
If the loss of an oddly magnetic, brilliant musician was jolting, though, the manner of his death was not entirely unexpected. Cobain spoke so openly on the subjects of drugs and depression and suicide that writers searching for easy obituary ironies didn't have to look very hard. Cobain himself even began joking about it; a song called I Hate Myself and I Want to Die was recorded but dropped from the last album. "It was totally satirical, making fun of ourselves," Cobain told a reporter earlier this year. "I'm thought of as this pissy, complaining, freaked-out schizophrenic who wants to kill himself all the time. I thought it was a funny title."
Love, an alternative-rock star in her own right, was in Los Angeles at the time of Cobain's death but reportedly flew to Seattle Friday morning. While talking to the pop-music critic Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times early last week, Love broke into tears describing her husband's recently fragile condition. "I just don't ever want to see him on the floor like that again. He was blue," she told Hilburn, recalling Cobain's overdose in Rome last month. "I thought I went through a lot of hard times over the years, but this has been the hardest." A source who had been close to Cobain confirms what now seems obvious: the European incident, labeled an accident at the time, was an unsuccessful suicide attempt. "You don't take 50 pills by accident," notes the source. Two weeks after returning to Seattle from Rome, Love had to call police when Cobain locked himself in a room along with some of the guns he enjoyed keeping around the house; police removed four weapons that day, including a Colt AR-15 semiautomatic rifle.
Growing up in the depressed logging town of Aberdeen on Washington's Pacific coast, Cobain had, by his account, a relatively happy childhood until his parents, a cocktail waitress and an auto mechanic, got divorced. He was only eight at the time, and he claimed the traumatic split fueled the anguish in Nirvana's music. He shuttled back and forth between various relatives, even finding himself homeless at one point and living under a bridge. His budding artistry and iconoclastic attitude didn't win him many fans in high school; instead, he attracted beatings from "jocks and moron dudes," as an old friend once put it. Cobain got even by spray-painting QUEER on his tormentors' pickup trucks.
Cobain formed and reformed a series of bands before Nirvana finally coalesced in 1986 as an uneasy alliance among Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic (a hometown friend) and eventually drummer Dave Grohl. Cobain married Love in 1992, when the band was first peaking on the charts, when she was already pregnant with Frances Bean, and when both parents had already developed heroin habits (Love claims to have kicked hers immediately after finding out she was pregnant). "It's a whirling dervish of emotion, all these extremes of fighting and loving each other at once," is how Cobain described the marriage last year, proudly showing off nasty fingernail scratches on his back.
It was Nirvana's unexpected stardom that seemed to eat at him. He appeared unusually tortured by success, even in a profession famous for containing people who are tortured by success. "He was a very bright, sweet, generous and caring individual, perhaps a little too sweet and sensitive for the business he was in," says Michael Azerrad, author of Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana. Danny Goldberg, the former head of Nirvana's management company who now runs Atlantic Records, says, "In all the years I knew him, he had very mixed feelings about being on this planet." Goldberg remembers another of the band's handlers once asking the singer why he was moping. "I'm awake, aren't I?" Cobain replied.
He suffered the usual torments of the underground poet moving into the mainstream, and was worried that his band had sold out, that it was attracting the wrong kind of fans (e.g., the guys who used to beat him up). True, he liked the money that went with mall-rat adulation. But in interviews he exuded a pain beyond standard-issue superstar whining. He said his heroin use was a kind of self-medication for stomach pains, but what he really seemed in search of was psychic equilibrium.
"None of this would have happened had he not been famous," insists Daniel House, a friend of Cobain's and the owner of an independent record label in Seattle. "When Nirvana started catching on, he was kind of bewildered. His music was so personal, it amazed him when people came out in droves to hear it."
They were there, though, because Cobain conveyed meaning and even beauty in his harsh recordings. His lyrics could be sour, occasionally frightening if opaque. Take these simultaneously blase and acerbic lines from the group's biggest hit, Smells Like Teen Spirit: "And I forget just why I taste/ Oh yeah, I guess it makes me smile/ I found it hard, it was hard to find/ Oh well, whatever, never mind." Cobain's sometimes fierce, sometimes weary growl, the sometimes convulsive, sometimes grating guitars, the very loud drums: all of it communicated anger, maybe loathing, definitely passion, no matter how inchoate.
His subject was the same perennial, youthful fury captured by the Sex Pistols, before they too self-destructed, and by the Who, before Pete Townshend survived to purvey nostalgia to Broadway theatergoers. Youthful nihilism may not be new, but no artist invents all his materials; it's what he does with them that counts, and Cobain wrote great rock songs as he explored a familiar theme with genius.
Last year a journalist visited a home he and Love were renting before they moved into the house in which Cobain would end his life. He had decorated one of the walls with this graffito: NONE OF YOU WILL EVER KNOW MY INTENTIONS. It could serve as his credo as well as his epitaph. "Guess we won't be getting the deposit back on the house," he joked.